More than ever, boiling this concluding year down to the ten so-called best movies feels both arbitrary and reductive. Ideally, I'd have 25 unnumbered slots. I'd cite another five, formally varied nonfiction films: Tchoupitoulas, Detropia, The Ambassador, Only the Young, and How to Survive a Plague. And if I were crafting this list on another day or in another mood, any of the following indies -- all of which deserved larger audiences than they got -- could have made the cut for a Top 10: Bernie, Dark Horse, Keep the Lights On, Damsels in Distress, The Color Wheel, Compliance, Middle of Nowhere, Bonsái, Goodbye First Love, The Day He Arrives.
The upshot being, essentially, that even as studio releases are becoming more generic and/or more obsessed with awards-baiting formulas and/or franchise longevity, the other side of the spectrum is looking pretty good. Great, even: It seems as though more worthy films than ever before are making the leap from the festival circuit to some form of theatrical distribution, while nontraditional distribution options (from streaming to one-night-only pop-ups) are increasingly acquiring happening-like cachet.
So I chose to abstain from voting in the Best Undistributed Film category in the poll conducted by New Times' sister paper the Village Voice. The distinction between "distributed" and "undistributed" seems more artificially binary than ever. Honestly, I'm far more passionate about films that were barely distributed in 2011 (such as Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country and The Day He Arrives) than I am about anything that seems in danger of falling through the theatrical cracks. A dose of perspective: In 2010, at the end of my first year on this job, the overwhelming winner of the Best Undistributed honor in our poll was Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme, which I described as "the only film... whose lack of distribution seems like a scandal." With all of the newish, increasingly viable options for films to be seen, it's difficult to imagine feeling so scandalized today.
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Another category in which I went with the "no vote" as protest: animation. On the one hand, this is an admission of personal failure: I didn't review a single purely animated film this year, and I didn't see enough of them to feel fully qualified to evaluate the field. Also, like the distinction between distributed/undistributed, I wonder if the notion of animated versus nonanimated shouldn't be up for redefinition. Where would The Avengers be without computer-animated enhancement? What are films like Life of Pi or The Hobbit if not live-action-animation hybrids, 21st-century versions of Mary Poppins? (That said, I'll take Mary Poppins over any of them.)
One final note: I love Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson so much that I contemplated finding a place here for that soggy, but not totally unsatisfying, presidential farce. In the end, I went with a Top 10 that I can fully defend.